Friday Night in Istanbul

My wife and I had settled in for a quiet Friday night. With all the recent madness in Istanbul—the bombings, the scapegoating, the reprisals, the anxiety, the melancholic farewells with friends who decided they can’t take it anymore, and the consolatory exchanges with others who feel the same way but have no avenue of egress—we weren’t in the mood for socializing. So after putting our son to bed and eating a quick dinner, we snuggled up on the couch and chose a promisingly anodyne romantic comedy. Right around the time the leads were coming to the realization that they were, in fact, meant for one another, I got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. When I returned, my wife was staring at her phone, mouth agape. “Has, siktir!” (“Oh, fuck!”) she exclaimed. “We need to turn on the news—now.” Grabbing the remote, she flipped to CNN Türk. They were showing the first Bosphorus Bridge blocked by tanks, and talking about a coup.

The next several minutes were a blur of channels, Twitter, Facebook, phone calls, and frantic debate about what we should do. My wife Googled the exchange rate—sure enough, the Turkish lira was plummeting—while I tried to ascertain the best way to transfer our savings out of the country. After two minutes of discussion, we decided to exchange as many lira as possible for dollars. As it turned out, however, the bank would not process the transaction. We tried again with euros, then with Swiss francs. Nothing would go through. I headed to the ATM to withdraw as much cash as possible.

I was hardly the first to step out on such a mission. It was nearly midnight, and every ATM in the neighborhood had a line down the block—except for one that was already out of cash. I queued up behind a heavyset fellow in gym shorts and flip flops. Some people were bouncing nervously; others were aggressively jocular, as if forced smiles and small talk could calm nerves and conjure normalcy. Everyone kept glancing at their smartphones. One guy kept imploring those ahead of him to leave cash for the rest of us. When my turn came, I took out as much as I could, with every card I have, Turkish and American alike.

On the way home I called my wife to check in. She told me that a curfew had been declared and that I should stop by the bakkal (convenience store) and manav (greengrocer) to stock up on food and water. There, too, the lines were long and the shelves were being quickly depleted. Over several trips, I was able to acquire twenty liters of water, three liters of beer, a massive watermelon, a bunch of limp asparagus, and the grocer’s last four tomatoes. By the end, the manav, which is open twenty-four hours a day and always full of gleaming produce, was emptied of just about everything but moldering scraps and nuts. I saw one guy walking down the middle of the street with a single peach and what must have been fifty packs of assorted cigarettes.

We spent the next several hours perched in front of the television, one eye on the news, one eye on social media, trying to figure out what was happening. I needn’t repeat the details of the drama as it unfolded; those have been covered elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it made for a harrowing night. By two in the morning, the streets were empty, and unlit military helicopters kept circling at low altitude. No one seemed to know whose side they were on. Around 3:30 am, fighter jets began screaming overhead at supersonic speeds, producing a series of thunderous claps that shook foundations, rent nerves, and shattered windows. My wife, who’d just gone to sleep in a state of despair, awoke in a paroxysm of fright. I don’t know anyone who lived through that night and didn’t find it terrifying. Things were even worse for our friends in Ankara. One couple who lives close to the main airbase there spent a good part of the night curled up on the floor, wrapped around their twin, two-month old daughters, hoping to protect and calm them as the sound of explosions echoed around. I finally managed to fall asleep about an hour after dawn.

When we awoke around midmorning, things were eerily calm. The streets were still empty. Cafes that would normally be abuzz with breakfasters were instead shuttered and dark. The government had announced that it had restored order, though reports on social media indicated that things weren’t yet entirely under control. In any case, it seemed clear that the coup had failed. President Erdoğan had called his supporters out onto the streets and they had responded in force, mobbing soldiers and clambering atop tanks in an impressive show of civilian resistance that the coup plotters proved insufficiently bloodthirsty to crush.

The response to the coup was in one sense united: All parties and all segments of society condemned it. But when it came to assigning guilt, opinions diverged widely. The government blamed the coup on a cabal of officers loyal to Fethullah Gülen—the leader of a massive, international, avowedly moderate but highly secretive religious movement—who since 1999 has lived as a political exile in the Poconos (and until 2013 was an ally of Erdoğan). Government supporters bought that explanation without question and circulated posts on social media calling for the “American dog” to suffer “hellfire”; one popular GIF showed him being decapitated by Erdoğan, who appeared in the guise of a vengeful sultan. On the other hand, many critics of the government were circulating conspiracy theories alleging that Erdoğan himself was behind the coup attempt, which they claimed was a false flag attack designed to justify his further consolidation of power. The fact that purges followed in short order, on a massive scale—among the judiciary and police as well as the military—lent these theories, which otherwise beggar belief, a frisson of plausibility. Such is the way of things in a land where the media is so cowed and partisan that the citizenry has no hope of ever learning the truth, about the coup and much else.

By evening, the cafes had opened and street life had resumed, albeit in subdued fashion. Life here in the bobo, liberal enclave of Cihangir—a redoubt of artists, intellectuals and expats—was slowly returning to normal. Conversations were more hushed than usual, and store shelves were not yet fully restocked, but to an outsider there must have been little to indicate the tension and terrors of the night before.

Things were different in Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, a mere ten-minute walk away. It was full of roving mobs of young men—always and only young men—waving flags or wearing them as capes, shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “polise uzanan eller kırılsın!” (“may the hands seeking to harm the police be broken!”). Taksim, I’m afraid, is no exception: The same thing is happening all over. The government has given these groups free public transportation and encouraged them to occupy all prominent public spaces every evening since the coup attempt. It has also, apparently, been issuing scripts: it’s been the same chants, everywhere, in Istanbul and Ankara alike, with each group marching and chanting behind a leader like a group of ecstatic, victorious football hooligans. The Islamist character of it all is very pronounced, and disconcerting—as is the level of ambient testosterone. I witnessed a few tense confrontations between these “champions of democracy” and people who made offhand comments about the in-your-face religiosity of it all. It doesn’t create a welcoming atmosphere for secular-minded Turks, or anyone who has reservations about Erdoğan. And yet those people are being criticized for sitting it out, even as they’re made to feel distinctly unwelcome.

For the past two days, I’ve been haunted by thoughts of what happened around Taksim in 1955, when similar mobs, bused in for a similar purpose, by a similar leader—whom Erdoğan adores and emulates—went on a rampage and destroyed the shops, homes, and lives of the area’s Greeks, Levantines, and others who enjoyed “alien” lifestyles. I hope things don’t come to that, but I’m afraid they might. And I’ll never forgive these people for making me feel this way. Which, I suppose, makes me a small part of the problem.

Marc Edward Hoffman is a writer based in Istanbul.